New York

Charles Burchfield

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The work of Charles Burchfield, a representational watercolorist all his life, concerns two related but markedly distinct subjects. In one, Burchfield more or less reports on the man-made landscape—from a small piece of battleships at sea done in 1915, when he was just out of art school, to a variety of scenes of industrial towns made throughout the middle of his career, that is, from the mid ’20s to the mid ’40s. In the other, Burchfield extrapolates from nature toward a mystical, symphonic fantasia which has no real counterpart in American art. As early as The Insect Chorus, 1917, he was exploring the near-hallucinatory responses elicited in him by the seemingly mundane locales of eastern Ohio and western New York State. These landscapes offered Burchfield all the stimulus his half-century-long artistic career required; he was sustained by a contact with the earth such as few other American artists have had, as this comprehensive show of some 130 works repeatedly made clear.

Burchfield’s aptitude as a draftsman was evident by his adolescence, and he seems to have understood nature’s central significance for his work at an unusually early age. The East Wind, 1918, done when he was only 25 and nearly as strong as anything shown, already shows the concern with the power of weather and sky that animates much of Burchfield’s subsequent work. The rain and snow of Buffalo figure large, as do the region’s frame houses; trees and their totemic force dominate any number of pieces, while insects and birds, the things of the sky, enliven many others.

These watercolors are separated from the parallel naturalist-derived work of such artists as Georgia O’Keeffe and Arthur Dove by their insistently representational qualities; Burchfield never sought the “liberation” of abstraction. Neither did he have any real affinities with Modern art, either via Alfred Stieglitz or through any firsthand observation of it in Europe. And for all its veracity of place, Burchfield’s work has little in common with that of the regionalists of the ’30s. His obsession with nature to the exclusion of human presence saved him from their standardized paeans to the sturdy yeomen of the Midwest. As antecedents, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman come to mind.

Sometime in the early ’40s Burchfield began to concentrate on his nature-inspired subjects exclusively and with renewed vigor. His twenty-year-odd preoccupation with human-centered landscapes had roughly coincided with the tenure of the Depression. The later works are often derived from sketches dating from 1917, but in them the Baudelairean correspondences Burchfield sensed in the woodlands and fields of western New York finds convincing new visual form. He sometimes increased the overall scale by adding side panels to standard watercolor sheets; already majestic in their profound appreciation of the biological world, such late pictures as Orion in Winter, 1962, show Burchfield’s new pantheistic panorama. Here and in other late pieces like Mist Phantoms at Dawn, 1960, his highly charged brushstroke (a feature not often associated with watercolor) builds to a crescendo of dazzling released energy.

Richard Armstrong